A-League crowds and TV ratings are understandably under the microscope, especially as the League starts its new broadcast deal with Network 10 and Paramount+, however something is being lost in these conversations… around 2 million Australians participate in Football already!
Along with these 2 million participants are parents and supporters who flock to games around the country each week, gorging themselves on Souvlakia and Cevapis as well as fill the terraces with colour and noise.
There are more people watching live Football in Australia than the AFL, NRL and their grassroots combined! Football is already the biggest attended sport in the country!
The big picture of the AFL, NRL and A-League
The A-League is just a small part of this ecosystem and what makes the game so beautiful and chaotic is its democratisation. The AFL and NRL dominate and control their sports with absolute authority – driving the narratives of the game and defining the purpose of participation.
Over 100 years this has led to a focused media and political ecosystem for these leagues however it has also cornered them.
For one, these league are the peak of their sport, so big metrics are not a little bonus, they are necessary for survival and come with huge pressure. For many players, these leagues unilateral control of the development pipeline means there is a single career focus and single drafting opportunity that means career dreams can be over in their early 20s.
Australian Rules and Rugby League are games that struggle to, and potentially cannot possibly reinvent themselves. Football on the other hand struggles to deal with the many ways it can reinvent itself…. A-League expansion teams, international cohesion, national second divisions, promotion relegation, development of the women’s game, FFA Cups… we take it for granted how flexible and diverse the game is and can be.
It is in misunderstanding this which has contributed to some of the problems the A-League has with engaging its huge potential fan base. The A-League is not carrying its sport. The A-League is not the single pursuit of players. The A-League is not and may never be the peak of its sport.
To some who fantasise about ‘waking the sleeping giant’ this may be hard to hear, but this is our reality and is actually our biggest opportunity.
Understanding what the A-League is and needs to be
Ange Postecoglou has generated more interest this year that any single A-League club. The Matildas generate more interest than the entire ALW. We need to recognise that the A-League is a small fish in a huge pond and it’s domestic and international interest can be supercharged by realising its potential as a development league.
For every Kuol we send to Europe the A-League gets thousands of people taking notice – those abroad who want to unearth the next gem, and those at home who look back on the comp with pride, curiosity and hope.
South Melbourne FC picked up thousands of new Scottish and Aussie twitter followers off the back of Postecoglou’s success and now have a larger following than Macarthur and Western United combined. Any A-League club that truly unearths a special talent will see the same.
What energises all sport fans is being the best and the A-League may never be the best league on its own, but it can certainly contribute to creating the best, which will feed back into the league and by necessity encourage clubs to engage with a much broader set of people.
Juniors will watch the league if they can see themselves playing in it, if they want to play in it, if they understand that the A-League is part of their Premier League and World Cup fantasies. This means:
- A-League clubs need to drastically increase their youth programs
- A-League clubs to provide these services for free
- A proper transfer system that incentivises development
- The A-League needs to support the Socceroos and Matildas in any way they can
What can fans do?
In short don’t worry about the numbers! Worry about your team! If you want to grow your club’s fan base don’t discuss ratings and attendances in echo chambers like #sokkahtwitter or r/aleague, discuss the cool and fun aspects of the game, create content that you want to engage with.
By growing your unique passion you will attract similar people to the conversation, and if nothing else you will create a richer and more diverse community for people who are currently engaging, which will lead to a better product on the pitch.
For every A-League grown player or coach who achieves success on the world’s biggest stage, our entire community and ecosystem is lifted. For every success the A-League can mark, more heads turn to the League as a source of hope and inspiration.